Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Mindful Monday: What’s Your Brick Wall?

brick wall.jpg
This is a piece from my archives. But it’s a good reminder of my brick walls today.
“Brick walls are there for a reason,” said Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer-science professor who so poignantly taught us how to die in the years after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “They let us prove how badly we want things.”

I know what my brick wall is because I snuggle up to it every evening, mistaking it for a pillow: perfectionism.


The demon that has earned the blue ribbon for powers of debilitation in my world is the annoying, high-pitched, squeal of the perfectionist chick who thinks that when a college classmate calls recruiting for help organizing the reunion, the right thing is to say yes. In fact, “yes” is the only word in the irritating broad’s vocabulary.

“Can you help out with the Halloween party?” “Nnn…….. okay.”

“Will you chaperone the field trip to the pumpkin patch?” “I caaa…….sure.”

“Could you organize the ‘Santa’s Run’ fire-department gig for the needy kids? “Nnnnnnn……maybe.”

I want to be the devoted mom at all the class parties. I want to be the noble citizen who contributes her time to community service. I want to say thank you to my alma mater for the four exceptional years of nurturing and education I received. And I want my traffic numbers for Beyond Blue to win me a seat next on Oprah’s set.


“No really, Oprah, the pleasure is mine.”

But this equation–best mom, wife, citizen, graduate, blogger–is bad math. Really bad math, comprised of one unrealistic expectation after another.

I know this now. There’s my progress! But I still have to do something about it.

My memory of slamming into that brick wall two years ago is still so fresh that an alarm sounds in my mind everytime I get too close to the perfectionism prison, and I automatically recall the day I snuck out of Johns Hopkins psych unit to walk around the inner harbor with Eric.

We sipped Starbucks cappuccinos inside the tall warehouse renovated into a three-story Barnes and Noble. I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray, Love,” read her bio on the back cover, and got queasy. Not because I hated her book, but because it triggered the Energizer Bunny dance, the self-destructive jig that the overachieving inner child in me does to win love and acceptance because she believes she has to earn them with impressive accolades.


“Do you mind if we get out of here?” I asked Eric. For the first time in my life, books made me nauseous. I wanted them out of sight along with anything and everything that belonged to the publishing world–until I had some core of self to go with my bio, until I felt a real connection to God and to the important people in my life, the kind of stuff that doesn’t evaporate with bad royalty figures.

I boycotted all bookstores for four months, threw out my issues of “Publishers Weekly,” skipped all conferences or workshops–until I could look into the mirror without scowling, until I came up with ten positive qualities about myself that had nothing to do with writing.

I’ve been hearing the alarm lately–the drumming of the moronic pink bunny–because I’m getting obsessed with the numbers again. If they go up, I make my way to Ben and Jerry’s with a wide smile. If they go down, I make my way to Ben and Jerry’s without a smile. (Either way I still get the chocolate sprinkles.) Which is the major reason I have begun getting up at 5:30 in the morning to begin my day in prayer. Because if I go to God first thing each AM I’m less likely to hit that wall so hard.


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  • Elizabeth

    Hmmm… I think my brick wall would also be perfectionsim. I think that my battle with OCD at times could be described as a battle with perfectionsim. The slate is clean until I mess it up and then I need to ruminate about all the ways I have messed up that clean slate. Even though I know it’s my OCD, sometimes it happens so quickly that before I know it, I’m sucked into the cycle.
    Great post!

  • Heather Whistler

    Wow, I love that you ended your post by mentioning the power of prayer and meditation! I too find that spending time with God–on my knees first thing in the morning and last thing at night, as well as praying the rosary after lunch–really helps to keep me calm and centered.
    Prayer and meditation has been a big part of my recovery from bulimia and binge eating, and it helped my husband recover from a manic episode brought on by bipolar disorder. When I’m in tune with God, I’m less edgy, and therefore way less likely to abuse food.

  • Della Menechella

    I agree perfectionism is a tough one. It is right up there with, “I should be doing more.”
    I find that tapping into God throughout the day (especially when I am going into full stress mode) makes me realize that I am not alone and that things will work out okay.

  • Amy

    Hi Therese. I have been following your blog for a long time ever since I read your book. You have saved my life. For the first time since I read your book and followed your blog I prayed the St. Therese of Avilla Novena across the past week. I found my rose. I found my purpose. My marriage was saved. God BLESS you. I would love to share my story with you. If you could email me and let me know if you are having any book signings coming up soon I would make it my life mission to attend. GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR WORK. YOU ARE MY GUARDIAN ANGEL.

  • Lori

    Oh Amy… I am crying tears of joy for you, but in them such agonizing tears for my pain. I am so lost and desperately want to find my rose. During the past crazy five years of my life, God has shown me in so many ways that he hasn’t given up on me- and I am constantly looking for those open windows after the doors shut… but I am overwhelmed by all the windows… which one to go through?? Which one is God’s?? My head knows that all of them actually are God’s- in his abundant love, there are so many things for which I am so grateful, but my heart prevents me from choosing any door… because I know what my wall is: guilt.
    (oh, um… hello Therese- you are so beautiful on so many levels. Thank you for all that you do- for being that beacon of light for us, for being real and honest, for being so funny, for tying all of us together with the bond of hope, and for saving Amy- and the rest of us. When Oprah finds out about you and Beyond Blue, she will surely want you on her show. but right now, thank you for being on OUR show…)
    so back to my guilt. I know, I know, it is my choice to let guilt in… my head knows that. But all the mistakes I have made… although I have come very far, and really taken positive steps to clean up my messes, I don’t know what to do with those mistakes, with all the guilt. I feel this huge need to package it up, nicely of course, and put it somewhere. In the meantime, it looms over me. And in these positive steps I have found my wonderful therapist, have accepted my bipolar 2 diagnosis, have remained under the care of my psychiatrist and take the medication I need, stopped addictive behavior in my attempt to self medicate/numb my pain, rebuilt broken relationships, gone back to school to pursue my doctorate… my head can recognize all these good things, but I cannot let go of my guilt. So I feel panic… and fear… and regret… and self hatred. and I feel so sorry for hurting people I love. I am often paralyzed with fear and anxiety. I know I should just let it go… my head knows that- I get it. But if I let it go, then how do I remain accountable, which has been such an important part of my recovery? My brain is made up of compartments, in which I must neatly file everything… but how? where?
    Amy, I am glad I read your comment. You inspire me. And Therese… thank you for everything you do. You have touched so many people and saved many lives- I know you must hear that all the time. But I hope you really know it. No- I mean, REALLY know it.
    and thank you to anyone taking the time to read this.

  • victor

    Dear Therese:I agree completely with you.What would haave become of me in my life without faith?My life has been battered but I always know God is by me and his gentle hand guides me.Please let us know more of how your Professor faced death,it´´s somethingI have yet to
    master(I am a physician).And your unique blog made my day after reading Loris wrenching message.I will tell her that as a bipolar
    man I have lived well for the grace of God. I daily swim for a quarter of an hour and my mood improves(I am over 60)I strongly
    recommend you Lori to pay attention to the aerobics work out.Your psychiatrist will confirm my suggestion.God bles you and Therese.

  • Frederick Arend

    In the beginning there were two people, a man and a women, they united together and formed the human race. We still have this union today, we call it a marriage. If we give the the rights, privileges and social acceptance of marriage, to same sex couples we will popularize these other unions and we will set the human race down the road to extinction which have created by butchering unborn babies inside there mother;s bodies.

  • donna

    I’ve been reading you for a long time and have never posted until today when you really spoke my language. When you shared about getting queasy when looking at Elizabeth Gilbert’s book it reminded me of how I felt recently reading my college alumni magazine. I was 1985 graduate of Miami University (Ohio) and a broadcast journalism major who was good enough to succeed if only I had allowed myself… Imagine my queasiness when I opened my alumni magazine to see that the famous Coupon Mom from was also a 1985 graduate of Miami. Of course, she became famous after appearing on Oprah! I’ve finally given up any desire for notable success. I would just be happy to be relieved of my headache of 11 1/2 years. Thanks for reading this.

  • Kevin Keough

    Keep this in mind. Where you are and how well you are doing is so improbable. You are infinitely father along than you allow yourself to be aware of. You’ve lived through plenty of fires of purification that you are disoriented.
    “Your future is so bright you gotta wear shades” as an Austin based band put it.
    You don’t need Oprah. She needs to learn more about all the things that are fundamentals to you. And you are worrying about not making Oprah ?
    Therese, your message is a stumbling block for Oprah.
    She is way richer. You are way classier, real, funnier, ….a higher quality instrument that is right in tune………
    Do a video poking fun as the numbers\bounce to and fro….play yo yo head till you get dizzy and make us dizzy then you be still, smile, and crack some joke only you can deliver.
    That’s my two cents re dealing with the imaginary wall.

  • Erika

    Therese’s post is a good description of a demon I know well. For the past several years, I have been struggling to finish a dissertation that, I now realize, was driven far too much by the “external reasons”–the ones about proving I was smart enough, good enough for “the big leagues.”
    I believe that the answer lies, not in battling back these impulses, but in connecting with different ones. Every so often I realize that there is a whole different voice that asks a whole different set of questions. Instead of, “who would ever look at your work when they can read Liz Gilbert?”, there is one that says, “But what do you love? What is the yearning of your heart?” The first imagines the worst possible response to the outside world and tries to preempt it.The other voice–what I would identify with “The Light” (in Quaker-speak)–I recognize as wisdom–as drawing me back to what is true and what really matters. The question is–how, in practice–to make the wise voice the one that guides, and not the fear-and-anxiety driven voices of perfectionism and people-pleasing?
    Prayer is primary. And maybe so is mortality. I am thinking of something that Matthew Sanford said in describing his coming to terms with becoming paraplegic after an auto accident in his twenties. (episode of Speaking of Faith, available in an archive). He talked about grieving for himself as a walking person, an athlete–he said “it is a kind of death”. But then he said, but we all have to deal with these deaths, even people who aren’t paralyzed: all of us at some point realize that we won’t be the NBA star and the President of the United States and the Hollywood film star–or even more modest dreams than these. That is, we realize that the lives we imagined for ourselves will not be, and those are deaths we have to grieve.
    But the other side of that grieving is–or can be–that we are freed to find the life that we _can_ lead, and perhaps it can be about something besides whether it would make us famous or adored. Maybe it could grow out of the things we truly care about and the connections we really yearn to make. In the Middle Ages, people were encouraged to contemplate mortality as a practice of prayer (notice the skulls on those old portraits?). I wonder if reviving these practices wouldn’t clarify for many of us what really matters, and help us to see through the other stuff as what doesn’t?

  • Anne Costa

    The issue is not perfectionsim but having boundaries.. helathy boundaries that say this is my limit, this is my no,
    We can’t freely say yes to anything or anyone (even God) until we learn to say no. It is the no of our true boundaries that defines us… it is real humility and once we get this… is brings tremendous peace.

  • Belle Pullano

    Once I realized that someone else would be found to do the job I was being asked to do and would probably do it just as well as me or better, it made it a whole lot easier to say no to requests that I had no business agreeing to do. I developed the ability to see myself ‘right sized’. There is only so much time in the day and I can only do so much and remain balanced. I am not the center of the universe and life will go on. Not being able to say no is frequently spoken of as being a people pleasing trait, but it can also be ego driven- you say yes because on some level you believe you can do it better than anyone else, and pleasing people is a bonus, but it’s the ego calling the shots.

  • Sherrill

    When in a sorority in college I belonged to “The Sucker’s Club” and our motto was “We spell no y-e-s.” I still have trouble with that sometimes today!!!

  • Trish

    Love this reminder Theresa!
    As I have the blessing of getting older, and having gone through recovery for co-dependency, I now have a stronger sense of priorities- and that helps- to have God re-shape my value system.
    Who cares if I don’t measure up? Who I am measuring myself against? it is foolish to compare. God only made one me, and that I can do.I ose perspective really fast when I look around , instead of up, and just give thanks for all the blessings in who I am . I am weird, but so what? I am still connecting doing with being loved and accepted, but I am making progress.
    Thanks for being you, and sharing what you learn with us all!
    What a blessing that you have a partner who lets you be you, I know you give him the same freedom. That is a huge gift.

  • SuzanneWA

    I realized I was at the age when I would NOT be the FIRST of anything…FIRST female astronaut; FIRST female President of the United States; FIRST to write the Great American Novel…PLUS losing the dream job of Aide to a U.S. Senator because of a nervous breakdown. Now, which came first – the chicken or the egg? Was I NOT destined to accomplish GREAT things, or were the fates against me? In high school, I was ALWAYS saying “YES!!” I was Senior Class President; I started the Teen Age Republican Club in our community; I was typist and reporter on the school newspaper; I got early admission to my FIRST, and ONLY college choice – The American University!! I had MADE it!!! But following 3 major, life-threatening operations, I STILL tried to “do it all.” My “brick walls” loomed. I started asking God – what have I done to deserve THIS??!! I had the “dream job;” a fiance; my first apartment; etc. And, it all went up in smoke with my first manic episode in 1968. My “limits” were thrust upon me; I did NOT choose them. Learning to say “no,” was harder than I ever imagined. But – I HAD to do it. I had all 3 of my manic episodes in my 20s – the last one being in 1977. My “perfectionism” was the delusion that I was the “daughter of God.” Can’t you see it now? I was so blessed as a child and teenager, that I just “collapsed” when I turned 20. The proverbial “bucket of ice water” was dumped on me. Annother – why ME, God?? As I sit here typing this message – hoping that someone would recognize their ambitions like mine – I can look back on an unfulfilled life. I had two marriages that ended in death, five years after I married each one. I didn’t have the ability to have children, so I sit here – at 62 years old – with my two cats (who do keep me grounded),taking my meds religiously, going to my shrink, and following “doctor’s orders.” I’m unABLE to work (says my therapist), though the DESIRE is there to PROVE my WORTH in other people’s eyes. Shame on me – I AM a valuable child of God, and I have purpose in this life he has chosen to give me. I may not have been the FIRST at anything, but now, I am the best person I know I CAN be. I have loyal friends and a community. I contribute to blogs and carry on as best I can. “No” has become easier as time goes by. Get AWAY from that desk you’re typing on, and HUG somebody!! Remember – God loves you, and so do I…

  • Allison

    Glad to know that I’m not alone in my over-achieving inner child-ness too…have you heard that song by 10th Avenue North, “By Your Side?” It’s written from God’s perspective to us, and it comforts me every time I try to do too much (like everyday)…
    Why are you striving these days?
    Why are you trying to earn grace?
    Where will you go, child?
    Tell me, where will you run?
    Where will you run?
    I’ll be by your side, whenever you fall
    In the dead of night, whenever you call
    Please don’t fight these hands that are holding you.
    My hands are holding you…
    (those are my favorite parts)
    Thanks again Therese, for all that you do…this site is fast becoming one of the places I go to “center” when I feel anxious because it points me to God, lets me know I’m not alone, and changes my perspective for the day.

  • Deb

    My brick wall used to be that same over-achiever and perfectionist but I outgrew it as I got older. Now my brick wall is procrastination mixed with a lot of laziness! But God’s grace always covers me no matter what…

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